Am I an idiot? Or did I just finish reading Peter Watts’ Firefall novels?
Por que no los dos?
If you’ve ever thought to yourself “dang, I need recommendations for a good movie” or perhaps “I need to break out of this musical slump and discover some engaging new artists” or “my taste in books sucks” I have simple recommendation for you: go look up award winners.
That’s initially how I became a “Movies Guy” actually – I grew tired of not understanding pop culture references when I was in my teens and literally decided I was going to be “Movies Guy” and I thought “where do I start?” My response to…myself…was to just pull up the list of Academy Awards winners and just start going down the list. While the Academy is certainly not infalliable (Crash is god-awful), it’s a great place to start. Similarly, when looking for new music, I’d suggest perusing the nominees and winners of Britain’s Mercury Prize, and for sci-fi and fantasy literature, the nominees and winners of Hugo Awards.
The list of Hugo nominees absolutely seethes with incredible fiction – the page reads like the who’s who of my favorite novels. Indeed, this is how the cooped-up younger version of myself discovered the like of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon, The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons, the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series by Cixin Liu, and my latest read, the Firefall novels by Peter Watts.
This is not a brag on myself or anyting, but I like to think i’m a pretty seasoned reader and consumer of science fiction media – most of the themes and tropes and self-referential shenanigans that readers will find in this genre are not new to me, nor are some of the scientific concepts that future technology (or whatever) are based on. That said, Blightsight and Echopraxia, the two books composing the series, made me feel like an hare-brained clown. I said to Julianne “I don’t think my brain is big enough to understand what’s going on.” While I applaud Watts’ cosmic brain, I’m not sure he does himself (or his readers) any favors by packing these novels to the gills with out-there concepts.
Blindsight drops readers into the final decade of the 21st centry, some 80 years from now, as the spaceship Theseus explores the Oort cloud in search of the perpetrators of the “Firefall Incident” (my words, not the author’s) – the official description of the Firefall omnibus on Amazon describes it thusly:
Pretty creepy, right?
It’s a hell of a way to kick off a series, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and the mystery at the core of the Firefall Incident barely even scratches the surface of all the things going on in these two books. Yes, answers are suggested, but as a reader, i’m not sure I am satisfied with the apparent conclusion of the series. Of course, the author isn’t obligated to appease my simple mind, and the answers I seek aren’t really the point of the exercise, but still; Blindsight and Echopraxia read more as an intellectual showcase for the author rather than a riveting space yarn. In fact, I looked up from the text at one point early in my read and said to Julianne “this dude is really smart, and he wants you to know it.”
Writing with an ego is important. I would point you to my short essay on art-as-vanity, but that would be vain (😉) – instead (ahem) I will say this: Peter Watts is terrifyingly brilliant, but hanging out with him at a Chili’s would probably be a beat-down. While I found both books to be more-or-less riveting, the almost feel like he was trying to cram every academic paper he’s ever read into each book, and that’s probably saying something: Peter Watts literally has a Ph.D. That said, i’m not sure the density of the ideas and scienfitic lingo actually serve the story – some paring or, dare-I-say, dumbing-down might’ve reduced the number of times I had to look up at the ceiling and take a breather. The characters in the book would call me a “baseline” – without any neural augments to help my caveman brain understand what I was reading, I was completely lost on occasion.
Make no mistake, however: I have lots of good things to say about both of these books. Despite the difficulty level, I actually blazed through both stories in about two weeks time, and I think it was because they were so interesting and challenging. Much like my experience with Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, there was a host of concepts blending together that really put me on-edge and grabbed my attention – there’s nothing about this that’s easy, and that uneasiness kept me coming back. While these novels are definitely hard sci-fi, Watts injects just enough humanity into the story that readers can connect with its characters – one way it does this is by offering some perspective on what it means to be human because, uh, not every character is.
Considering what i’ve said, it will not come as a shock that, unless you’re a pretty hardcore sci-fi person, I have difficulty endorsing these two novels. I’m not saying you need to be a literal doctor to understand what the hell is going on, but if jumping through intellectual hoops to understand a story turns you off, these aren’t for you. That said, if you’re a hard sci-fi fan and you’re intrigued by the idea of cybernetically-altered post-humans, deep dives into the field of neuro-biology, and vampires in space (yes, literally), then maybe Blindsight and Echopraxia will be your new cup of tea.
If nothing else, at least check out this short film (trailer?) based on Blindsight – SLIGHT SPOILERS, MAYBE, but this is an INCREDIBLE representation of what this novel feels like, both in terms of its design and also its themes and vibe:
Firefall and Echopraxia can be found wherever you get your books. Have fun, sleep tight, and don’t let the space spiders bite.